When I was ten years old I tried to teach myself to speak and write Cantonese, using an old Chinese schoolbook I had found in the closet. At that age, I loved playing school with my sister, who would sometimes use her own allowance to buy little play workbooks for me to fill out while she pretended to be my teacher. I remember coloring the apple in my spanish book with a red crayon while memorizing “La manzana es roja,” and using my yellow crayon for “El banano es amarillo,” even though I hated bananas and would not eat them, even when baked into banana bread.
I wanted to learn Chinese because I longed to know what my mother and PoPo (grandmother) were talking about as they spoke to each other in their rapid-fire Cantonese, a language I feared for its harsh-sounding (to my ears) tones, but which also held a key to a world that I had come from, a world from which I had been arbitrarily exiled.
“It doesn’t translate,” my mother would say brusquely whenever I asked her what they were saying. Part of my mother’s response was the typical harried “don’t bother me now, I’m busy,” brush-off, which, as a mother myself, I know very well. But part of it was also something deeper, something more shameful and life-shaping.
“Mom, are kids being kidnapped?”
My daughter was three years old and I had flicked on the radio above her changing table one morning, just as I did every morning. We were putting on her socks as usual and her question caught me off-guard. The report on the radio was indeed talking about the rising numbers of children who had been kidnapped, usually by estranged parents in custody disputes. I automatically reached up and punched the power button on the radio, rendering it silent. I didn’t respond to Allie’s question either. She was only three years old; I didn’t want to scare her by introducing the idea that indeed, children were being snatched from their homes and schools— even if it was by members of their own family. I didn’t want to acknowledge the apple in the garden of her childhood.
Allie didn’t ask about kidnapping again, but I was distressed. What would I say the next time she had a question I didn’t want to answer?
Growing up in a largely non-Asian community, my parents were very aware of our status as outsiders. My father had come to this thirsty town in the Inland Empire to start a dairy, an unheard of task, as most of the farms in the area had been passed down from Dutch father to Dutch son, or from Portuguese father to Portuguese son. A Chinese cowboy with no family lineage, whose own father had died in jail after being arrested for selling opium, my father was used to proving himself to skeptics. As one of a handful of Asian families in the area, we were instantly noticed, even if people often mistook us for one another. (“Hi C!” friends would yell at my sister from their cars as they drove by while she was playing tennis, thinking she was me.)
After my brother’s kindergarten teacher told my mom that the kids were making fun of him for talking funny, my parents spared my sister and me the pain of being teased by not teaching us to speak Cantonese at all. Our language wasn’t our culture or our heritage in this town—it was a liability. We didn’t have the luxury to keep it, so poof, it disappeared.
When my husband and I brought our daughter home from the hospital, the radio became my constant companion in our day together. I listened mostly to National Public Radio, sometimes to the local rock and roll station. I didn’t listen to the radio to make my child smarter, I didn’t listen to classical music to encourage her brain to make the connections between neurons —I listened to the radio for my own sanity. I needed to hear the sound of human voices speaking of the greater world, especially when I was tied to hearth and home, unable to get farther each day than the grocery store or playground a few short blocks from our house.
As I breastfed my daughter, I would listen to the reports on the cloning of Dolly the uber- sheep and the findings of the Hubble telescope, sometimes dozing, sometimes filing stories away in my mind for future use. I was grateful to have something to discuss with my husband and friends besides how many dirty diapers I had changed that day, or how many loads of laundry I had done.
Together Allie and I listened to Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, the CBC, West Coast Live, Whad’ya Know, and even Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers. Allie never made any comments about it, except to wrinkle up her face in distaste if she didn’t like the musical interludes on Terry Gross’s show on a given day.
When my mother told me that her conversation with my grandmother didn’t “translate,” it pained me to my core. It cut me off from my PoPo, whom I would never learn to communicate with properly. “You good girl! Eat more!” she would say whenever I visited. This was confusing because at that point, my parents were trying to get me to stop eating, so I could maintain my weight at a maximum of 100 lbs. At the time I was working out with my high school swim team both before and after classes as well as doing weight training during our designated PE class. We had to do 100 sit ups and 100 pushups before we even got into the pool in the afternoon. I don’t think I was in danger of becoming obese, but everyone seemed obsessed with my figure.
My grandmother would also grab my knee at random moments and squeeze either side of the kneecap, which was both surprising and painful, though she only laughed when I squealed, as if this was an act of affection she was blessing me with. Without being able to really talk to her, I was never able to ask her about her childhood, how she came to America, what she thought of living in Chinatown in LA, or why she thought squeezing my knee (and also cracking our toes in a similar fashion) was such a delightful activity to her.
In addition to impatience, my mother’s, “it doesn’t translate,” also carried her anger. I took my mother’s refusal to explain things to mean, “You will never understand,” as if I was too stupid and she had better things to do than to try to help me comprehend the people around me or the people to whom I was related.
When Allie was about a year old, my husband and I started teaching her baby sign language. We taught her the sign for “thirsty” (a single finger stroking downward on her throat), “hungry” (two fingers making the same motion as “thirsty”), “water” (three fingers shaped like a W tapped against her lips), “more” (three fingers rubbing the upturned palm of the other hand in a circle), “popcorn” because it was one of her favorite snacks (both hands moving up and down while the fingertips opened and closed in a popping motion), and even “dirty diaper” (a closed fist twisted in a clockwise motion).
She became accustomed to communicating her desires and asking for things from early on. “I’m hungry.” “Water, please.” And “More popcorn!” her pudgy hands and fingers would chatter at us. Then she started chattering verbally, asking question after question about things she saw in books or in the videos she sometimes watched.
“What does ‘exile’ mean?” she asked after viewing The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride.
“Well honey, it’s—hmm—it’s when you leave your home and you’re not allowed to come back.”
And this, apropos of Mulan: “Dad, what does ‘proclamation’ mean?”
“Uh, it’s when the emperor gives the order for men to join the army to fight the Huns.”
“Mom, what does ‘opportunity’ mean?”
“Oh let’s see, that’s when you have a chance to do something or say something. You have the ‘opportunity’ to go to the park on Fridays, right?”
The Cantonese schoolbook I found must have come from the Chinese School my mother attended when she was growing up. I thought it weird that my mother went to Chinese School every Saturday, even though she spoke Cantonese with her mother and father in their home every day. From Monday to Friday, she and her Chinese friends went to Belmont High School to study math and english and history, but they spent their Saturdays reading, writing, and speaking Cantonese. She made it sound like something everyone did, and maybe that was true.
Unsurprisingly, I failed to teach myself Cantonese. Not even the little primer with its parched yellow paper and vertical columns could overcome the difficulty of writing the infuriating characters that would end up looking like some elongated or contrarily squished squid-like object, not the elegantly calligraphed brush strokes I tried to copy. As for wrapping my leaden tongue around the words and creating the correct tone for each version of a word (high level, mid level, low falling, low rising, low level), which could turn the syllable “ma” into either “mother”, “horse”, “hemp”, “scold”, or indicate a word was a question—that was a losing battle. For one thing, I had not grown up hearing or making those sounds, and my mouth, tongue and teeth now refused to comply with my brain’s directives.
For another thing, every time I heard my mother speak to my PoPo in Cantonese, I was convinced they were engaged in an intense, bullet-riddled argument. As my mother stood by my grandmother’s stolid frame and put the older woman’s hair in pin curls, the two would yell past each other in a way that made me want to run and find a quiet, dark place to hide. Later, when I asked what they’d been talking about, my mother would either say, “It doesn’t translate,” or something innocuous, like “Oh, we were talking about going out for lunch later.”
I was not ready for it when I heard Allie’s three-year-old voice pipe up from the back seat of our car, “Are boys shooting kids at school?”
“What?” I asked, not sure I had heard her correctly. Hadn’t we just been listening to Princess Jasmine dream about a whole new world?
“Are boys shooting kids at school?” she asked again and I stopped thinking about my endless to-do list and listened to the announcer on the radio; sure enough, they were airing another report on the aftermath of the Littleton, Colorado shootings at Columbine High School and how schools were coping with security issues in the Fall.
I had let down my guard for a brief moment and the real world and its violence had slipped in on invisible airwaves.
I couldn’t ignore her question this time; there was something urgent in it and in the situation that gave rise to it. So I gripped the steering wheel in my hands for strength and replied, “Yes, two boys did bring guns to their school.”
“And did people die?”
“Yes, some people did.”
Allie was quiet for a moment and I was scrambling in my mind about what I should say next, when she said, “I’m sad about the people who died.”
My heart broke a little. ”I am too, honey.”
“The boys who shot the kids, they lived.” It was a statement, not a question, which puzzled me.
“No,” I said slowly. “They died too.”
“Did someone shoot them?”
“Uhm, no. They shot themselves.”
Allie was quiet. And confused—why would anyone would shoot themselves? Was she trying to imagine what it would feel like to shoot herself? Was it even possible for her to go there? I continued, “Those boys with the guns. They were very angry and very sad. That’s why they shot some kids and that’s why they shot themselves.”
When I graduated from college, I moved from South Pasadena, where I had been living in an apartment on a wide street that always flooded when it rained, to San Francisco, which had been Valhalla in my mind ever since I had visited my cousins there during the summer. I was seduced by the rainbow-colored Victorian houses, which were in stark contrast to the white and beige stucco boxes of my hometown, and the vibrant clash of cultures I felt when we walked to Clement Street for dim sum, or went to Chinatown to see my uncle, who worked as an accountant and kept an office in a building with a glass elevator.
Even the air of the city was a revelation to me—from the thick fog that would envelope the streets during the summer, to the cold salt wind blowing off Ocean Beach where we would go to PlayLand by ourselves, no adult supervision required. “We were free-range children,” I tell my kids, who grew up with supervised playdates and after-school enrichment classes.
When I moved to San Francisco, these were the reasons I cited, but the deep down reason was to get away from the voices I had grown up with. I loved my mother and father, but I knew that if I stayed near them, I would visit every weekend just as I always had. If my mother wanted to eat Chinese food at Diamond Seafood in Diamond Bar, that’s what I would do. If my father wanted me to help him install a new sprinkler system in their yard, that is what I would do. If I had other plans, I would change them so as not to have to listen to how my mother always felt she was a second thought, never important enough to warrant a real visit. For reasons that baffled even me, I was desperate to fix whatever it was that had induced my mother’s unhappiness as soon as I heard the tone of irritation and disappointment in her voice.
Moving to San Francisco alleviated the pressure. I wouldn’t have to say no to my mother’s requests if I physically wasn’t able to fulfill them. I told myself I was moving toward something—my future—but I was just as much moving away from something else. And that moving away was what I would do for a long, long time, because I didn’t know I was doing it.
When I had children of my own, I told myself that I would raise them differently than my siblings and I had been raised. This was another kind of moving away, the kind that every generation does, or attempts to do: Fix the problems of the generation that came before them.
Allie remained silent. Was the moment over? Should I say something else? How much was enough? How much was too much? I ventured into the unknown silence slowly. “Sometimes we’re sad and angry, right?”
“I guess so.”
“But it’s not right to shoot anybody because we’re mad or sad.”
“No,” Allie agreed. “You shouldn’t shoot anybody.”
“That’s right,” I said, but even that didn’t seem like enough. “Because there are lots of other things you can do when you get sad. Do you know what you should do instead?”
Allie thought for a moment, then said, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” I said, “What are some things that make you happy?” I felt a little bit like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, but if it worked for her, I was willing to chance it.
“Playing with Zander.”
I was actually surprised to hear this because our dog, Zander, was not the easiest dog in the world to play with. (Allie had once accidentally fallen over him and he jumped a mile in the air, turned a terrier somersault and yipped angrily at her.) But I would have been grateful to go with almost anything positive she said at that point, and was even contemplating the time- honored tactic of going to get a delicious and distracting ice cream cone.
“That’s good. When you get sad, you could play with Zander. What else makes you happy?”
“Flowers,” she said, warming up to our little game.
“Oh, flowers make me very happy,” I agreed, “What else?”
“Seeing the fish at the Aquarium.”
“I love the fish! And the dinosaurs too,” I said.
We listed the things that made us happy: birds and songs and Sarah* and Tracy* (Allie’s cousins) and David* and Ginny* (more cousins), eating waffles with syrup, drawing on the sidewalk with chalk, going to the playground with Daddy, and blowing bubbles at swimming class.
“So,” I said, finally relaxing a little bit, “There are a lot of things you can do to make yourself feel better when you’re sad. You can talk to me or Daddy or Teacher Ann at school, or your friends.”
“But will guns make you feel better?” I asked.
“No.” Allie said, “Guns scare me.”
I was sorry that Allie and I had to have this conversation this soon. If she had been older, maybe 10 or more, I don’t think I would have added the last bit about guns being bad, since an older child can see a lesson coming from a mile away and will resist it. But for a preschooler, reinforcing rules was a way of life: wash your hands. Say please and thank you. Share your toys. Guns are dangerous.
And I suppose I could have ignored Allie’s question. Wouldn’t it have would been simpler to pretend I didn’t hear it? Parenthood is full of judgment calls, some small and some large. How do you know when you’ve made the right decision when the results are so far down the road you can’t even imagine the map yet?
Just talking isn’t a simple fix. Even after you’ve instructed kids not to play with guns, a majority of them will do it anyway, if they find one lying around the house. Life is more complicated than “Guns are bad.” It’s hard to stop listening to the voices in our heads, emotions are difficult to deal with, and playing with your dog doesn’t always make you feel better.
What can we do then, when the pleasures of childhood no longer suffice? When the fears and insecurities of adolescence take the place of watching fish at the aquarium and looking at pretty flowers in the backyard? What will take the place of these little conversations that I so deeply love?
Allie is a young woman now, a college graduate, with a full-time job, living far away from her father, sister, and me. She calls us when she has a question about the real world—taxes, say, or how to choose a cable plan. “Adulting is hard,” she will say after one of these calls.
Yes, it is.
After the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, I asked Allie if she remembered our conversation about Columbine.
“No,” she said, casually interested, almost as if her younger self was a friend she hadn’t spoken to in a while. “Did I really ask about a school shooting when I was three?”
“You did,” I told her. “And it totally freaked me out.”
“Wow,” she replied. “That’s so weird. I don’t remember talking about that at all. What did I say?”
What I thought would be the most horrific event of high school students being slaughtered in their classrooms was unfortunately only the first of many: Sandy Hook Elementary School (28 killed, 2 injured), Oikos University (7 killed, 3 injured), Umpqua Community College (9 killed, 9 injured ), Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School (17 killed, 14 injured). And hundreds of other shootings on campuses across the country where people were killed in disputes between students and teachers or students and other students.
Allie graduated in Portland, Oregon, May 2017. Two weeks after the commencement ceremony Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was stabbed to death on the Portland TriMet during the evening rush hour commute. He was one of three men who stood up to protect two women from a man screaming racial slurs at them. Taliesin was a friend of my daughter's and he had just graduated the year before the attack. He was working and had bought a house and liked gardening and playing futsal with his friends.
Now he was gone.
Violence has come to the lives of my daughter and her friends. We struggle to understand the reasons, how fear and anger translate into these acts of horrific violence. Like my mother, sometimes we try to protect those we love because we are afraid of what might happen if they know too much. And like me, sometimes we try to protect those we love because what we are afraid of has already happened.
Whose voices will we turn to when we’re sad, lonely, angry, confused? There are so many competing for our attention. Will Allie hear me talking to her through the chatter of the world with all its music, static and clamoring voices?
What will she will hear my voice calling to her through the echo of all these years?
*Not her/his real name.